In the spring of 2014 I took my first college writing course. What a class it was! I thank God for the teacher who led us in reading E.B. White, encouraged us to be sentient and aware of the world of wonders around us, and helped me write college papers that I would find interesting later in my life. The assignment for this essay was “write about a theme from Charlotte’s Web”. I chose humility.
The Valley of Humility: or, The Lady Behind the Desk
A few months back, I listened to a speaker at a conference give a series of speeches which all struck me as being of dubious veracity. He seemed to have great confidence in his rightness, and threw out many statistics and numbers to back him up, but in general his numbers impressed me as either too vague -“In 10 years, 70% of men in their 20’s won’t be grown up.”- or too specific- “In 30 years the American nuclear family will no longer exist.” – to be saying something true. I feel bad, in a way, attacking the speeches of a fellow prophet of doom; I think that the slippery slope is a well documented phenomenon, and that when people have thought that things can not get any worse, things have. I do want to grow up before I am 30, but I do not want to grow up to be like him, that is, I want to make whatever case I am making carefully and convincingly, sounding confident, but only in humility. I do not want to to speak or write as if it is my automatic right to be considered right all the time by all who hear me. I want people to accept the point I am making because it is backed up with a whole army of solid arguments.
When I talked with him afterward I spoke with a meek tone and gently broke it to him that I thought he had not solidly argued his opinion that Shakespeare was one of the great corrupters of our society. When in response to my challenge he told me, “You need to be more humble,” I was a little surprised. I had not heard him give this edifying advice to any of those whom I had heard profusely thanking him for his speeches. It was a special message for me.
“[A] man can always discuss a thing more intelligently and honestly if he knows he is not being taken seriously.” – E.B. White
I hope that you will not take me seriously, for I am going to write about myself.
I can only be honest about myself if I think you will read it as self deprecating humour and think better of me (for having the charming tendency to under-rate myself) as opposed to the inevitable outcome of reading this as perfectly truthful.
I shall begin with Tuesday night. The setting: the Physical Science 101 lab. Behold me among the students – every muscle that aids focus tensed, desperately putting numbers into my huge ancient office calculator, barely keeping up with the class. I hoped that if any of my classmates noticed that I was not an adept at science they would also notice that I was carrying a violin case and assume that, at the expense of my science studies, I had become a great musician.
After lab I drove to orchestra. Trying to avoid last week’s mistake of exiting the freeway an exit or two late and having to wander about a bit, I exited the freeway an exit or two early and had to wander about a bit. Still, I got there on time. At orchestra I sat in the back of my section marveling at the other violinists who looked like they were successfully playing 16th note chromatic scales in 7th position at quarter note = 132. So much for music being where I had prowess. If music is not my thing what is? Physical Science? During the first violin sectional time the principal gave us some fingering suggestions (that is, which finger you use to get a particular note). I did not catch them all. Was I humble enough to ask her to repeat the fingerings that I had missed? No, and as we practiced these sections faster and faster I became less and less able to fake it. I bragged to one of the other fiddlers there that I was going to go home and write a paper. As hard as science and and music are, I can write a paper. I save writing homework for last because it is easiest.
All my Physical Science homework for that week was due that night at midnight. After driving home from Vancouver (the long way; the I-5 South bridge was closed) I messed about for a while and then got cracking on my homework. In the last assignment that I worked on before midnight struck, I got to watch a simple animation of a ladybug riding a skateboard on a parabola shaped track. Not the mountain kind – the valley kind. When the bug was high on the slope she had a lot of Potential Energy, when she reached the bottom of the valley it had all turned to Kinetic energy. Then as she climbed the other slope the Kinetic energy turned back into Potential Energy.
Speaking of valleys, valleys have long represented humility. There is an old song with the lyric “As I went down in the valley to pray…” What is it talking about? I think it is talking about going into the valley of humility to pray, because you have to be humble to pray right.
“Though the Lord be high, yet hath he respect unto the lowly: but the proud he knoweth afar off.” (Psalm 138:6)
In the spiritual “There’s a meetin’ here Tonight,” are these words:
“I went down in the valley one day, met old Satan on my way.
What do you reckon old Satan did say?
He said turn back young man, you’re too young to pray.”
What’s Satan saying in the song? “You’re young! You’re strong! You’re beautiful! You’re a god! What are doing down in this valley of humility? What are you doing calling out for help like a common beggar?”
Midnight arrived. I began writing my paper. I was exploring the two main kinds of humility in Charlotte’s Web. I called the kind of humility that is humble enough to ask for, and receive help, “Wilbur humility” and the kind of humility that helps someone else, not insisting on one’s own pre-eminence in demands for attention or respect for one’s comfort and desires, “Charlotte humility.” It was hitting rather close to home. Did I have any of either?
I made a connection between myself and the bug on the track. The more she falls on one side of the valley the more she climbs the other side. The more of “Wilbur” type humility I had, the more questions I humbled myself to ask, the more meek “I need help” student posture I took on, the better I could humbly serve others as Charlotte did. The more of the one, the more of the other. It seemed like it might be proportional.
As my excitement about my thesis was reaching a fever pitch, so was I. I was getting sick. Finally I realized that my confidence in my strength to stay up and write this paper were misplaced. Like the tree the man leans on that bends and breaks in the old song ‘The Water is Wide,’ my stricken body could not bear me through the work required to finish the assignment.
Wednesday early, early in the morning my little sister came to the side of my bed of pain: “Caleb. Alberta is sick and the van has a flat tire. You need to call Grandma and ask to borrow her car and drive me to school.” Here was a great opportunity for a humble servant to step up to the plate, get dressed and, not thinking about his own comfort, wake Grandma with a phone call, trek through the antarctic winds to Grandmother’s house get her car, and so help a damsel in distress. I knew someone who was a humble servant. “Talk to mom,” I said. “I’m sick.”
That afternoon I got up. It was supposed to have been the first day of rehearsals for the children’s choir I direct. Should I cancel for sickness? Ah, children’s choir. I like simple beautiful songs. I like the children in my choir. I like being able to say something when asked if have a job. The other day at science lab a girl asked me where I worked that I dressed so fancy. She was not impressed when it came out I am just a jobless dandy.
Directing children’s choir is something I think I am good at and the rehearsals are held next door to where I live, so I decided to stumble on over. We had fun for the first little while, but when I had to figure out a transposition to make a certain song fit the children’s voices better, I became totally confused. I felt everyone’s relaxed, enjoying class feeling and respect for their teacher feeling draining away. I wasted many minutes of many lives during the latter part of that rehearsal.
I can partly blame being very sick. But why had I not humbled myself to learn, when studying music theory, to carefully analyze a problem? If I had humbled myself and carefully studied modulation and intervals then, I could better bless those whom I teach now. I felt like one of those whom Oscar Wilde was talking about when he said: “Everybody who is incapable of learning has taken to teaching.” It is as if I just want to run to the front of the choir and take the applause for what others can do because I could not get applause with any of my own skills, sort of like Avery Arable, who did no work for Wilbur, even threatened Wilbur’s life when he hunted Charlotte, but made himself the center of attention when Wilbur got his prize.
(This is what that phrase “less than nothing” that they discuss in Charlotte’s Web really means: nothing is when all you add up to is dust and ashes, less than nothing is when you are positively bad; you add up to a negative sum.)